What is the "Church?"
We need a workable biblical definition
Photo by Skull Kat on Unsplash
What is the church?
It sounds like an obvious question until you ask people and receive numerous answers.
Some definitions sound scholarly by referring to the Greek text of the New Testament (ekklesia) and often rendering the single word erroneously as a prepositional compound of two Greek words, ek (out of) and kaleo (to call), signifying “called out ones.” Never mind that the Greek term actually means the opposite— “called together ones,” as signifying an assembly coming together.
Some correctly note that the church is not the building but the people. But then we go ahead and tell people we are going to church, meaning we are going to a service in the building. Don’t even get me started about how we fold our hands together and tell children, “This is the church, and this is the steeple…”
In a similar vein, we correctly note that the Bible teaches the church is one, signifying its organic nature encompassing a diversity of believers who are nonetheless united in Jesus and indwelt by His Spirit. The church is a singular entity, yet we talk about various congregations as “churches” in the plural.
It’s not wrong to use the plural. After all, Jesus sends seven letters to seven churches in Revelation. But it can be confusing to speak of Church and churches, capitalizing one to signify worldwide (and eternal) unity while not capitalizing the other when referring to certain parts of the church in various locations.
Attempting to modify
Sometimes we will add modifiers such as “local” church or “universal” church.
We speak of the monolithic, but not necessarily united, Roman Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Church while confidently lumping all Protestants under a single label despite its thousands of denominations—including non-denominational and independent church congregations.
After a while, it becomes cumbersome to say “church” and then have to list its qualifiers. There is big “C” church, little “c” church, universal church, local church, and Catholic Church (having to further distinguish between the Roman Catholic Church and the universal small “c” church catholic).
There is also the Protestant church (really meaning a constellation of denominations), or the “Eastern Orthodox Church” (once again having to distinguish the believers in the East from churches considered doctrinally orthodox with a little “o” where “orthodoxy” is always in the eye of the beholder).
It would be tough to make the church label more confusing. Still, we make it so by using synonyms such as gathering, assembly, congregation, home church, house church, fellowship, or by adding a thousand attributes singly or strung together— Life Church, New Life Church, Grace Church, Peace Church, Hope Church. And don’t forget all the millennial generation name concoctions such as Fusion, Elevate, Elevation, Wellspring, Destiny, Dream City, Intersect, Reality, and Rise.
My personal favorite is “Boring Church,” located in Boring, Maryland.
Let’s try again
What if we simplify the definition to “the people who follow Jesus?” Nice try. But not everyone who claims to follow Jesus actually does, so not everyone who goes to church is a Christian. Who are the true disciples, and who are not? Jesus says there will be both “wheat and tares” in His church till the end when the angels will separate them.
There are other factors as well. We talk of the “church,” but we also talk of the “kingdom.” The New Testament church was born at Pentecost in Acts 2, but the reason why we have to call it the “New Testament” church is that many hold that all believers in the Old and New Testaments comprise the church.
And notice I didn’t call them Old Testament “saints,” or I would have to write even more to qualify what it means to be a “saint.” Notice I said believers in the “LORD” with all CAPS to signify Yahweh as God the Father before the coming of Jesus.
So even among Christians, there exists no agreement on when the church started and exactly who is in it.
Are we having fun yet? It’s tempting to call it a “club” or “religious institution,” but even those labels are already taken.
What is the church?
The church is the people of Jesus’ kingdom who are out of place, out of phase, and out of time—here too soon, but right on time for a kingdom already here but not yet come.
Unpacking the Definition
The church is the people of Jesus’ kingdom…
The church is people, not an institution or organization.
The church is Jesus’ people meaning those who He purchased who follow Him by faith. Some claim to follow Him, even go to church, but if they do not believe in Him, while they might be “church members,” they are not His people (Matthew 7:21).
Jesus’ kingdom is His rightful reign over all creation and is what He came to offer through Israel in His First Coming. His invitation is to follow Him to enter into His eternal kingdom and to receive eternal life. Today, as believers, we become part of His church (1 Cor. 12:13), but our goal is not to go to church nor get people to go to church. Rather, our goal as the church is to follow the King making obedient disciples who also enter His kingdom.
People who are out of place…
We are out of place because we are citizens of another kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36).
People who are out of phase…
We are out of phase because we are different and act differently from the world (Eph. 5:8).
People who are out of time…
We are out of time because we are citizens of Jesus’ kingdom (that He came to offer to Israel but was rejected), which is already present in us as its citizens but has not yet fully come as we await the return of Jesus the Messiah.
Some implications of this definition
It understands the church is a people, not how the people organize nor where they meet.
It focuses the church on Christ’s kingdom and its goal to make obedient disciples.
It recognizes the already/not yet aspects of His kingdom.
It recognizes that currently, not all people who go to church or are members of the church are actually followers of Jesus by faith.
It recognizes that being the church carries the necessity to be and act differently from the world.
Issues we still need to clarify in coming articles
What is the purpose and mission of the church?
What is a church “congregation?”
What happens within a congregation?
This talk of the word "church" and all its issues has been something God has also revealed to me. I've also spoken to countless peers who received the exact same revelation, but through different circumstances, that we need a cultural shift in how we use this word. I'm convinced the Holy Spirit is revealing this intentionally for such a time as this.
In Vietnamese, my mother tongue, "church" can't be directly translated into a single term and isn't used the same way as in English. It can only be translated into 3 distinct phrases: chia phái ("denomination" or literally: "divided faction"), nhà thờ ("worship building"), and hội thánh (literally: "the holy gathering"). In fact, because Vietnamese culture is intensely collective, the word for denomination, "divided faction," naturally makes the term and idea culturally unpopular among Viet Christians. On the other hand, Western Christians seem so proud of their denominational labels that what doctrine they claim to follow holds more weight than Who they claim to follow (mind-boggling to me). It's fascinating how powerfully language can influence cultural thought, and cultural thought influences language.
Google "Jesus eraser by nakedpastor" for a potently satirical comic on this topic.
I'm also convinced the tsunami is coming. There will be unprecedented difficulty, persecution, falling away, but also repentance, reform, and revival. I've actually begun to throw the shaka sign more, because if a big wave's coming, why not ride it? Surf's up, nameen? Hang ten! 🤙🤙🌊🏄